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May 10, 2021

Facepalm moments please?

Head of PPP Media Cell

The belated approval of the cabinet of two bills for the protection of journalists and the media persons and making the forced disappearances as a criminal offence is welcomed notwithstanding that lot of waters have already been flown under the bridges as media has been grappling for air to survive under the unbearable conditions since this government was foisted upon through political engineering. The dust has been piling up in the Ministry of Law for considerable and unwarranted length of time, seemingly by design, to grind down the media in a supine uniformity during the interregnum period. The time to catch up may be right and hence initiative to provide some relief to media by bringing out the bills for the protections of journalists, followed by promised release of outstanding dues to the media industry. Minister for Information’s meeting last week with the press clubs presidents of the country may be reviewed as an attempt to palliate the wounds of the journalists who have been writhing in agony in the media landscape of the county. Minister of Information’s assurance may fill this void. Let us see as how the talk walks or remains inconclusive?

It seems the ruling leadership is satisfied with browbeating of the media, and now feels the time is right to change the strategy in view of the harsh criticism of the government emanating from the international organisations in particular. Their annoyance may have unenviable consequences on the economy, and on the standing of the leadership that already may not be in their good books. The European Parliament’s recent resolution also mentioned gaging of media as the one of the reasons to consider the review of the GSP+ facility granted to Pakistan in 2014. Its withdrawal may surely have the potential of inflicting devastating blow to the country’s textile industry that constitutes about 60% of country’s exports.

Freedom of press has been under increasing stress in Pakistan, but the PTI government’s spokespersons vehement denial of the open secret may surely be reflective of macho-mentality rooted in delusionary mindset. Its reckless professing without regard to the ground realities is indeed preposterous. The media analysts, journalist’s representative organisations and the owners of newspapers and media channels have been raising their voice against the draconian practices to muzzle the media, but no avail so far. The international media organisations like Protection to Journalist Committee, Journalists Without Boarders, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International have been time and again highlighting the shrinking of media freedom in Pakistan ensuing in bedeviling the image of the country right across. Likewise, Pakistan Human Rights Commission, press clubs of the country and civil society have been demanding the stopping of the anti-media practices like censorship, financial penalties on specious grounds, squeezing the revenue stream on purpose, intimidation and harassment of journalists, silencing of the dissent and dissent voice. But, the government pays no heed to such decrying and instead prefers to see the other side signaling no change whatsoever. Undoubtedly, the uptick of these anti-media covert misdeeds may be the bi-product of the ‘hybrid system’ that necessitates its survival and permeation without the scrutiny of media. This is wrong due to the incompatibility of the means and ends.

Today, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country for the working journalists according to the International Media Watch, Protection of Journalist Network that monitor the working conditions of the journalists throughout the world. This badge of dishonor, hanging at the forehead of the country, is regretful if not shameful for the nation. But the government and the unaccountable state institutions do not feel so as they continue to raffle the feathers of media with impunity and that too without fear of legal consequences. Their claim of freedom of media in the country is like ‘bland-face lie’ because journalists are routinely subjected to surveillance, intimidation, and disappearance incommunicado and sometimes even gruesome murder of them. Such reports continue to appear in the media and yet government’s spokesmen’s assertions to the contrary in this regard could not be starker.

Absar Alam was seriously injured by mysterious gunman that seemingly was planned because of incident’s familiar modes operandi to silence the voice that was critical of the policies of the government and the state institutions. The deceptive formulation of the government’s narrative on the freedom of media is pitiable by any stretch of imagination. Instead of accepting the ground realities to put the house in order the government has been seemingly on the trajectory to shrink the space for the media without compunction. No wonder, the credibility of the government has hit the rock-bottom among the people who seemingly feel hoodwinked by the PTI leadership for betraying in fulfilling the tall promises of positive change in their collective and individual lives. What they got in return was poverty, unemployment while food prices have been going through the roof threatening their very subsistence level. The media is no exception that accorded unprecedented coverage to the ‘container politics’ but now facing penalties, joblessness, and suspension of transmissions for covering the speeches of the major opposition leaders.

The crimes against journalists do cast aspersions on the law enforcement agencies’ apathy as well. There have been hardly any arrests after the numerous criminal incidents against media persons. Or, LEAs are too scared of the state and non-state actors to apprehend the culprits who evidently want to stop the media from shedding light on their misdeeds riddled in criminal overtones. They carry out gruesome criminal activities without the fear of the wrath of the law. Hundreds of FIRs, bearing the allegation of crime against journalists, keep on piling up with the investigation agencies. Obviously, the perpetrators might have the backing of the known and unknown actors on whose behest they had committed crimes against media persons and human rights activists.

The rate of conviction was almost naught with the exception of the murder of Wali Babar of the GEO TV in Karachi. In this case culprits were arrested and brought to justice. Barring this case, hundreds of varied nature of criminal cases remained undecided as the LEA’s fail to complete the cases for initiating criminal proceedings in the court of law. The LEAs inability to proceed against criminal elements in the absence of the evidence may not make sense because court will reprimand the prosecution in the first hearing asking as who are the accused? For this reason, largely the cases have remained inconclusive and so the question of rate of conviction does not arise. Is it not fair to apportion the blame on the government for failing to undertake its constitutional duty of protecting the journalist-citizens of Pakistan seriously? The judiciary may not be absolved of the responsibility in guaranteeing the fundamental rights of freedom of media as one of the fundamental rights. It has constitutional power to take suo moto when the matter is considered as of extremely of public interest. Crimes against journalists raise the fundamental question of fundamental rights, of which the apex court is the custodian of. The eerie quite in this regard may be frightening.

The working conditions of journalists in Pakistan have gone from bad to worse due to the anti-media covert policies during the incumbent government that seemingly pays no attention suggesting mala fides if not collusion. The apparent apathy of the government may imply the endorsement of the government that pathetically wants the journalists and journalism to operate within the surreptitious parameters regardless of their inconsistency with the statute book or the imperatives of the constitution.

Such alacrity may surely be perceived as censorship that has become so familiar in the newsrooms. The instructions are given regularly not to cover the particular news item, or the news story be projected with slant. Such instructions have become norm than exception notwithstanding the hue and cry of the journalists, media broadcasting houses and the civil society against such assertions. Indeed, the government and the state institutions may want the muzzling of media by design in order to hide the truth which they consider not worth sharing with the people in view of the exigencies of the survival of the hybrid system .This mindset may clearly be operating against the Article 19 of the Constitution that guaranteed the freedom of media and speech with reasonable limits as defined in the Constitution. The defamation law could be invoked entailing the punishment by the court of law if the journalist crosses the redline in the exercise of the fundamental right of freedom of media and speech.

But, the state actors or non-state actors do not prefer to follow this course of legal action for many reasons. Firstly, they want immediate compliance considering them judge, jury and executioner. Secondly, they know the court will not find the journalist guilty because no violation of the law is perceived to be involved. Thirdly; they want to remain behind the scene and desist to be held accountable. Their choice of strategy may surely be illegal but they have impunity as they have hardly been held accountable. The prevalence of impunity has been ensuing in more violence against journalists. As such, they used the third degree methods like harassment, enforced disappearances and sometime eliminating the recalcitrant media persons.

Free media is sine qua non of democracy. Without it, democracy may be mere rhetoric with empty words. Palm-face moments please?

Akram Shaheedi

[email protected]